25 January 2012

A masque for Cyriaco

Dancers, based on a drawing by Cyriaco. 
He may have been trying to draw these Samothraki dancers.

In August 1446, Cyriaco of Ancona wrote letters to his friends, Franzesco di Drapieri, and Baldassare Maruffo, the podestà* of the Genoese colony of Galata, or Pera, across the Golden Horn from Constantinople.  Cyriaco's editor, Edward W. Bodnar, SJ, believes that the Maruffo letter describes a fantasy.  I am not so sure.  Such masques as he describes were popular back in Italy, a way for respectable women to perform in public, and a nice way to exhibit girls eligible for marriage.  

Early in the letter Cyriaco compliments Maruffo for rebuilding and extending the walls of Galata, and gives him an inscription to be inscribed in marble and attached to the walls.  The inscription survives in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.  It begins:


and continues for nine more lines.  Translated, this reads: "Good Fortune.  To Baldassare Maruffo, son of Baldassare, well-deserving podestà of this illustrious Genoese colony, Galata Pera, on the Thracian Bosporus . . .." 

Then Cyriaco describes the long day of August 15, the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin (or the Dormition of the Theotokos) which the Genoese observed at the Galata church of St. Francis.  Cyriaco himself went to services at Agia Sophia before taking the ferry to Pera to a celebration. 

In both letters, Cyriaco wrote: "First of all, among the distinguished, celebrated golden-haired nymphs of Galata I saw your beautiful daughter (the comely, beautiful, beloved daughter of Franczesco di Drapieri, the elegant market inspector for Thrace and Asia,) Elisabetta Maria, conspicuous in gold and a cloak the color of the sky, walking just as once the chaste, quiver-bearing goddess Diana was seen gloriously leading her band."
Both letters say that he saw her later in the day at the Umbriaci house with friends, relatives, and in-laws, "clothed in her father's divine, golden gifts, speaking with gracious joy during a decent (honesto) drinking party and replying to me most becomingly." Cyriaco pronounced her husband, Tomasso Spinola, most fortunate, because apparently Elisabetta Maria had been wooed by a number of highly-placed men, and a few rulers.

I think Cyriaco was carried away enough to write his description of Elisabetta Maria first, and only then then describe where he had seen her, thus giving the passage the fantasy quality Bodnar identifies.  Several days later, on August 21, the young Gerolimo Franchi took Cyriaco up to the top of the Galata hill -- quite a climb, really -- to the grand house of Benedetto Selvatico where "noble fellow-guests, especially eminent citizens, and colonists and their wives, as well as their married and unmarried daughters."  Notice how the young women are daughters first, even if they are married. 

In the Maruffo letter, he writes that while he was admiring the young women and their wardrobes, he saw descending from heaven "three divine, radiant nymphs" who moved into the crowd and took on human identities. Now for a very long time, churches and stages had been able to show divine descents from heaven, and there is no reason not to think that the wealthy citizens of Galata couldn't manage the same kind of show.  Particularly as the event turned out to be given in honor of Cyriaco who had been a guest of the Byzantine emperor, and who chatted with the Holy Roman Emperor, and was an agent for the Medici, and who knew absolutely everyone.

The first nymph, Pohyhymnia, became Lisabella Selvatico, "an upright, modest, and most charming widow dressed in a dark-blue cloak and wearing a snowy-white veil." She began a public address to Cyriaco, describing the grandeur and history of Genoese colonies -- something with which Cyriaco was familiar.  There was nothing unusual about a woman's giving a formal public address.  Battista Malatesta de Montefeltro gave one to a visiting pope, and in Latin.  Cyriaco writes in Latin anyway, so it is not clear whether Lisabella was declaiming in Latin.

When Lisabella-Polyhymnia finished, Urania became the "deeply modest maiden" Moisetta Catania," radiant in white.  She spoke about the emblems of Genoese triumph: weapons collected in battle, bolts of gates, beaks of ships, a great bowl of green stone from Syria, the body of St. John the Baptist (except for the head), and then moved to a discussion of the decay of contemporary Genoese in comparison to their ancestors' nobility.  This does sound quite unlikely and certainly contributes to a judgement of fantasy.

Then the nymph Calliope became Elisabetta Maria who was apparently wearing the gold and blue she had on last week.  She tossed her gold-tressed head and told Urania she would speak to Cyriaco about Galata.  She began:

"I heard a voice from heaven saying to him, 'Alas, flee the weakness of the Thracians' land.  Flee this rapacious shore and its citizens, no longer Genoese, but degenerates, leave them behind, colonists in a barbarous, motley land . . ..'"

That is where the document ends.  It is difficult to know what to think.  How likely is it that Cyriaco would write an imaginative theatrical performance criticizing his hosts? He did, a year later, at Mistra, write a dismal Latin poem for Constantine Palaiologos about how modern Sparta was not up to the standards of Lykourgos.

Still, there was surely a party for him on the Galata hill, and a masque with those pretty daughters.

Wasn't there?

* podestà = governor.  

The translations are mostly from Edward W. Bodnar, SJ, Cyriaco of Ancona: Later Travels (HUP, 2003).  Review here.

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